Study Guide

Birdman Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Alejandro González Iñárritu

    Before Alejandro Iñárritu was known as the guy who won a Best Director Oscar for The Revenant, he was a humble unknown, waiting tables in New York City.

    Er—scratch that. Before Alejandro Iñárritu won a Best Director Oscar for The Revenant, he won a Best Director Oscar for Birdman. Like: the year before. He won two Best Director awards in a row. (Our biggest accomplishment is probably "being able to sing "Midnight Train To Georgia" at karaoke night.")

    But let's get the full story on this maestro. Maybe we'll feel better about our achievements.

    When he was sixteen years old, Alejandro González Iñárritu was expelled from school in Mexico and hopped on a cargo ship heading across the Atlantic Ocean as a commercial sailor, during which he travelled to parts of Europe and Africa. Iñárritu "never studied cinema," he says, "I learned from life." (Source)

    Hmm. Nope. Iñárritu's still making us look bad.

    Life must have had a lot to teach Iñárritu. Returning to Mexico, he studied communications and nabbed a job hosting a radio station which he held for the next five years before deciding to try his hand at making movies.

    With his new production company, Z films, and a few short projects under his belt, Iñárritu teamed up with Guillermo Arriaga to make his first feature film, Amores perros, a story of three connected narratives that come together in Mexico City. After it was well received at Cannes, Iñárritu's career took off…all the way to Hollywood.

    In fact, why don't we just run through Iñárritu's entire filmography? Don't worry: it's only six (brilliant) movies long. After Amores perros came 21 Grams, followed by Babel, Biutiful, and Birdman, with The Revenant capping it all off.

    The first three films all have intertwining storylines which often appear out of chronological order, making Birdman a bit of an outlier—it does exactly the opposite, focusing on a single story with a small set of characters over a definitive and chronological period of time.

    It's also Iñárritu's first foray into comedy. Okay, maybe Birdman isn't your typical, Paul Blart Mall Cop kind of comedy, but it's got some funny bits—especially compared to his earlier, death-obsessed films. In fact, he first conceived of Birdman because he wanted to do a comedy and pictured a man floating in his underwear.

    If that's not a biutiful movie prompt, we don't know what is.

  • Screenwriter

    Alejandro Iñárritu, Alex Dinelaris, Armando Bó, Nicolás Giacobone

    Okay. Just who, exactly, came up with this one?

    A washed-up movie star? A guy who hates Broadway? A woman who just really, really likes tracking shots?

    The answer is, strangely, "none of the above."

    The main man behind the movie's script is definitely Alejandro Iñárritu, but because he did double duty as a director (and so is covered in our Director section) we're going to focus on his three cohorts…starting with Alex Dinelaris.

    A playwright and friend of Iñárritu's, Dinelaris went from some seriously humble beginning (like, sleeping-in-a-full-bathtub-for-warmth kind of humble) to initial playwright success to writing a screenplay about a play for Iñárritu…to winning the dang Academy Award. (Source)

    Dinelaris worked with the Argentinian cousins Armando Bó and Nicolás Giacobone to help bring Iñárritu's original vision to life. Apparently this "original vision" was the idea of a man meditating in his underwear while levitating a few feet about his floor—so comparing this to the sprawling theatrical and media criticism and personal drama that Birdman became, we'd say the script came a long way.

    Bó and Giacobone both had little experience within the American movie industry—although Bó had been working in various advertising jobs since a young age—but each of the three screenwriters had worked with Iñárritu on previous movies. In fact, after Birdman the three have taken to producing and writing on the TV series The One Percent (directed by Iñárritu, of course).

    But judging from what they've achieved so far, they're not even remotely finished.

  • Production Studio

    New Regency, Fox Searchlight Pictures, TSG Entertainment, Worldview Entertainment

    Yeah—it definitely took more than a few people to push Birdman out of the nest and into the freefall of stardom, so let's get to know each of the film's many, many producers and financers.

    It was the pockets of New Regency and Fox Searchlight Pictures that funded the film. Both companies had just worked together to fund 12 Years a Slave (so they know a thing or two about making sure Academy Award winners get made) and Brad Weston of New Regency and Claudia Lewis of Searchlight both worked closely with Iñárritu on the preproduction of Birdman.

    The financing company TSG Entertainment also lent its coffers to the project, despite it having decidedly less running around than Maze Runner, Taken 3, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. And let's not forget Worldview Entertainment, who managed to slot in Birdman between The Green Inferno and its sequel.

    And then there were the solo producers: dudes with more money than you could fit in Scrooge McDuck's swimming pool, and more Hollywood connections than…well, also more than you could fit in Scrooge McDuck's swimming pool.

    John Lesher is relatively new to the independent producer scene, but has already had some hits like Fury and Black Mass (and Birdman itself, of course). James Skotchdopole was also able to share in the glory of the Academy Award winner to go along with the Tarantino films he's produced…and other '80s and '90s films you haven't heard of that he's been an assistant director on.

    But these careers are nothing compared to the prolific Arnon Milchan. Founder of New Regency, Milchan sold his Israeli fertilizer company (we're not kidding) and has since produced a whopping 130 movies of various quality and thematic interest ranging from Fight Club to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

    Bonus: he was also involved in some top-secret Israeli government nuclear weapon shenanigans, a story covered by the 2011 unauthorized biography Confidential - The Life Of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon. Oh, dang. We can't wait for Milchan to produce a movie adaptation.

  • Production Design

    Colorful Closeups

    Colors

    Color-coding isn't just for stoplights and poisonous frogs; many movie scenes are adjusted to bring certain colors out of the screen to manipulate how the audience feels. Remember the scene where Laura pulls Riggan aside and tells him about the little person that might be growing inside her? The reds in that scene really stand out. It raises the intensity and licentiousness of their tryst, which is weird because it's not really a covert relationship.

    And compare this redness to the blues and greens that tend to permeate the rest of the hallways and stage of the theater. When the fake fog rolls out for Laura's monologue, the set has a very mystical blue glow to it, just like the darker blues we see in on the wings of the stage. But when we shift backstage to Mike and Leslie, getting in bed for their sex scene (during which Mike actually tries to have sex with her), we get more of red again.

    Then there's the stark yellow of the room during Riggan's confrontation of Sam about smoking weed and the following monologue. The bright yellow lighting mirrors the increase of intensity and almost seems personal to Sam as it stands out from the rest of the color palette. Hey, Mike does tell her she stands out from everyone else.

    Close-up Monologues

    And speaking of Sam's monologue, there are actually quite a few of these long, scathing speeches that characters give one another, and there's something special about the way they're filmed.

    Notice when Sam is yelling at her father, we see the whole thing from Riggan's perspective. We are looking at Sam as if Sam were talking to us. This does a few things. First, it's kinda scary and intimate, as if Sam is a real person talking to us. There are no cuts to break things up, no pans back to Riggan and back to Sam— it's just us and Sam in one long, uncomfortable take that we can't escape from.

    Secondly, it doesn't allow us to see Riggan's reaction. We know he's standing right behind the camera, on the receiving end of all of Sam's spiteful words, but we don't actually get to look at his face and see it change and react like you might expect from a normal movie. But leaving it up to the audience to interpret his reaction is in some ways more powerful. It's not hard to imagine what Riggan is feeling because we're feeling it to, and when Sam has finally wrapped up everything she has to say, we see the immediate sense of regret spread across her face and can interpret exactly what she's looking at.

    Finally, we might imagine these monologues at the camera as mimicking actors in a play. In a play, monologues and asides allow the audience into the thoughts and feelings of the characters (e.g. Riggan's monologue to the audience about the old couple in the car accident).

    And Sam's monologue isn't the only example of this: when Riggan confronts Tabitha, the camera stays focused on Riggan although we can perfectly imagine the affected, calm, smugness on Tabitha's face. And we get the same effect when Riggan talks to Sylvia about his plane ride with Clooney and Farrah Fawcett. This shot is almost painful because Riggan's obsession with himself and his own relevance has never been more apparent and we can only imagine what Sylvia looks like as she has to endure the knowledge that Riggan hasn't changed.

  • Music (Score)

    Antonio Sanchez

    Despite the whole "ineligible for an Oscar due to use of unoriginal classical music " thing, the score for Birdman made a lot of waves when people first heard it rumbling through the theater hallways.

    Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez composed the score for his old friend Alejandro Iñárritu (you can watch an interview with Sanchez where he talks about their relationship and more here) first in New York and then in Los Angeles. The first time Sanchez recorded he didn't even have any visuals to go off of. Iñárritu wanted something raw and improvised, so he would describe a scene to Sanchez and then sit with his eyes closed and raise his hand when something in the scene would change (e.g. Riggan would open a door, turn a corner, greet someone, etc.).

    Though the score was completely redone after the film was shot, those initial takes served as the basis of the sort of chaotic, staccato beats Iñárritu was looking for. In fact, Iñárritu thought the drums sounded too clean on the first take and had Sanchez dirty things up a bit so they sounded even more haphazard and disheveled.

    Of course, the point of this sound is to mirror the state of Riggan's mind. The camera follows Riggan around for most of the film, giving us a window into his experience, and like the cinematography, the score also serves to give us a taste of the chaos Riggan endures as he wanders what Sanchez calls the "bowels of the theater," stuck in its claustrophobic hallways.

    Sometimes, the drums themselves actually make an appearance in the movie. The first time is when Riggan and Mike take a walk on the street outside the theater. We hear the drums in the background but they slowly grow louder as the characters walk towards the drummer on the street before fading away when they enter the bar.

    The second time is a bit odder—Riggan walks through the halls on his way to the opening night second act and sees the same drummer playing in some random room he passes. It's unlikely that this street drummer is actually hanging out in a theater—he's probably just a manifestation of Riggan's inner-turmoil. Although with this movie, nothing's certain.

    Okay, maybe one thing's for certain: the next time we're super-stressed out, we're probably going to turn on the Birdman soundtrack.

  • Fandoms

    You would think that in our highly cultured society there would be an exact correlation between the number of Oscars won, general popularity, and internet fandom.

    But that's just not the case.

    Birdman killed it at the Oscars, but Iñárritu's film didn't prompt a whole lot in the way of juicy fanfiction or fan theories. Unfortunately, people weren't dressing up as Birdman (or a character from a Raymond Carver story) at Halloween parties in 2014. No one was making Birdman memes.

    But hey—the film got some rave reviews, and the Academy sure liked it. Maybe that counts as a fandom?